It may seem like just a simple plate of rice and sides, but nasi lemak (meaning “rich rice” in Malay) is a genuine celebration of South-East Asian flavours. For many in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines, the dish – usually comprising rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaf, a deep-fried fish or chicken wing, fried ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, egg, cucumber slices and sambal (chilli paste) – makes for a hearty and indulgent breakfast.
Sadly, the dish’s popularity has sometimes led to a dumbing-down of its ingredients. “Nasi lemak here has become very generic,” says chef Lee Eng Su of The Coconut Club in Singapore. “It’s always the same fried chicken wing, factory-made otah and lacklustre sambal.”
As such, Lee and his partners, Kamal Samuel and Lee Chan Wai, decided to open a restaurant specialising in high-end nasi lemak. Two years of experimentation and sourcing followed. Even after eventually settling on the Malaysian West African (MAWA) coconut – a premium hybrid with higher fat content and fragrance – imported from Selangor thrice weekly, their kitchen team spends nine hours a day cleaning and juicing the coconuts by hand to extract the milk.
Other ingredients demand similar attention to detail. For instance, fresh kampung chicken from Malaysia is used for the ayam goreng (fried chicken), while the otah and sambal are both handmade from scratch.
“A lot of people who appreciate our nasi lemak come from the older generation,” explains Lee. “They remember when food was less processed, and the authentic flavours of our nasi lemak are something that they miss. I wouldn’t say we’ve modernised the dish; instead, we focus on quality, like people used to back in the day.”
*Editor’s note: Chef Lee Eng Su unfortunately passed away in September 2019. The Coconut Club is still in operation at 28 Ann Siang Road.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine